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Hawaii road trip: Sweet sunset solitude on Maui's Haleakala volcano

Sunset from Maui's Haleakala volcano. Photo: author

“Please tell me you are not waking up before the crack of dawn to do a story about sunrise on Haleakala,” warned a friend who lives on Maui.

I wasn’t, but I knew why my friend objected.

Day to day, Haleakala’s sunrises are every bit as stunning as one might expect of a place whose Hawaiian name translates to “House of the Sun.” However, each morning hundreds of visitors wake up between 2 and 3 a.m. to make the hours-long drive in pitch darkness to watch the sunrise from Maui’s highest peak. Summit parking lots fill quickly. It’s crowded and noisy at the best viewpoints.

“What you really should see is the summit at sunset,” said my friend. “Haleakala sunsets are even more amazing than the sunrises.” Then, the magic words. “Plus, no one really goes at sunset.”

A view of central Maui and Kahului from the 8,500 ft. level of Haleakala. Photo: author

I had to try it. To get to the summit, it’s 28 miles from Upcountry Maui on the Haleakala Highway—a modern, switchback-packed, two-lane road. Two hours before sunset, the weather is perfect—blue skies, brisk tradewinds and cloud-free vistas.

It was 80 degrees when I left Upcountry Maui. At the Haleakala National Park entrance, about 7,000 feet above sea level, I notice the outside temperature has dropped to 62 degrees.

“Just 11 miles to go,” the ranger tells me at the park entrance. “Looks like it’s gonna be sweet up there tonight.”

Haleakala summit visitor center parking lot, on the edge of Haleakala crater. Photo: author

An hour before sunset, the Haleakala Visitor Center’s large parking lot, just below the summit at 9,740 feet, has just a dozen cars. The chill wind bites as I take a short hike up a rocky hill, looking for a choice spot to view the sunset. At the top, I look west and trace an imaginary line from the setting sun to its ultimate point of descent.

“It’s going to set behind those observatories, isn’t it?” says Maya Parker, another sunset chaser, nodding toward the summit’s “Science City” astrophysical complex on a nearby hill. Sadly, she’s correct.

Hiking back down our hill, Maya shares that she and her husband, Kyle, are “skipping sunset mai tais with our friends in Wailea for sunset on Haleakala.” Back at our cars, she declares, “The best spot might be this parking lot.”

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